Early Muslims in the Kingdom of Rakhaing (Arakan)
The territory, controlled by the Mrauk-U dynasty (1433-1785), the last dynasty in Rakhaing (Arakanese) history, stretched from Chittagong in the North to Thanlyin (Syriam) in the South until it lost the whole of Chittagong down to the River Naaf (Nat River) to Mughal in 1666 .1 Some Chittagonian Muslims however remained settled in the Kingdom of Rakhaing (Arakan). These were the earliest Muslim settlers in the Kingdom of Rakhaing and known as the Kamans.
Muslim Immigration during Colonial period
During the colonial period Chittagonian Muslims or Bengalis came to the land of Rakhaing freely to get employed in the developing cultivation there, which was part of the then British economic policy. In Sittwe (Akyab), for instance, from a few hundred inhabitants the population had steadily increased and even within the last decade of the 19th century the growth had been continuous as the census figures plainly show:
No importance is to be attached to the slight falling-off shown at the last census, which is attributable to an unwanted paucity of coolies from outside at the close of the busy season in April or May. The population is mixed one, Rakhaing of whom there are 11,531 predominating over any other race in terms of numbers. Bamars (Burmese), Chinese, and natives of India, mainly Bengalis from the Chittagong coast, total 18,328.2
According to a Health Ministry’s report for the year 1930-31, about 40,000 Bengali coolies came into the land of Rakhaing and some of them did not return to their homes. The British authorities, being aware of the potential problems between the Rakhaing and the Bengali Muslims, formed a special Investigation Commission in 1939 to study the issue of Muslim immigration into land of Rakhaing with Commissioner (Mr. James Ester) as Chairman and U Tin Htut and Yangon (Rangoon) University Professor Desai as members.
The Commission showed its concern and suggested to restrict the immigration of Bengalis to the extent necessary for cultivation. Their suggestion however did not materialize due to the outbreak of the Second World War.
WARTIME RAKHAING- INDIAN RIOT
When the British retreated from Burma during the war they were said to have left some of their weapons behind with the Indians. Some Burmese nationalists considered this as an act of British divide and rule policy. The armed Indians, mostly hosts and thus riots began.
The most severe incidents took place in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships and about 20,000 Rakhaing including Deputy Commissioner U Kyaw Khaing, an I.C.S. were killed.
There were more than 200 Rakhaing villages in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships before the war. During the wartime riot most of the Rakhaing inhabitants left their homes due to Muslim threat and after the war only about 60 villages were resettled by the Rakhaing, and the remaining villages were occupied by the Bengalis and some of these villages had the growth of population up to one or two hundred thousand Bengali Muslims.
Because of this the Bengali Muslims were very much encouraged and entered the land of Rakhaing by all means and thus posed a great problem to the inexperienced government of the newly independent Burma.
BENGALI MUSLIMS KINDLED WITH POLITICS
When they first settled in the land of Rakhaing, the Bengalis lived quite simply without creating any trouble. However post war Muslim League’s movement in the Indian Continent inspired them with Muslim unity and when the Indian Muslims demanded the establishment of a separate state (Pakistan), these Bengali Muslims in the land of Rakhaing also started to call as early as in 1942, for the merger of the Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships with Pakistan.
Some members of the “Jame-a-tul-Ulema-e Islam” religious association went to Karachi on a delegation to discuss the incorporation of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and also Rathedaung townships into Pakistan.3
The late U San Tun Aung, an AFPFL leader of Buthidaung, referring to his colleague MP. Mr. Abdul Khai, says in his memoir4 that upon the reimposition of their rule the British inspired the Muslims in the area to demand a separate Muslim state.
RAKHAING STATE AND THE MUJAHIDS
Together with the Burma independence, there emerged a large variety of insurgents such as Red Flag Communists, White Flag Communists, White Comrade (PVO), etc.. Educated Rakhaing were not then satisfied with the AFPFL Government’s policy because they had no self-determination as they had hoped whereas some other nationalities such as Shans, Kachins and Karens had at least a state of their own.
As the cry for Rakhaing Statehood became very loud the Bengali Muslims in the land of Rakhaing tried to take advantage out of the situation and said that if the AFPFL Government granted statehood for the Rakhaing they would be at Rakhaing mercy. Then they started to demand a separate state for themselves too and threatened to wage an armed uprising unless their demand was met.
The AFPFL Government turned down both the Rakhaing demand and the Bengali Muslims’ demand. In response to this denial Rakhaing withdrew their support for AFPFL and voted for the Arakan National Union Organization (ANUO) in the elections; and the Bengali Muslims launched the armed uprising under the name of Mujahids.
As a gesture of appeasement to the Mujahids, AFPFL Government allowed the above ground Bengali Muslim leaders to stand for the elections from the Buthidaung and Maungdaw constituencies. Four Bengali Muslims namely, Mr. Abdul Gafar, Mr. Sulton Mohamad, Mr. Abul Khai and Mr. Abu Bawshaw became MPs while their Rakhaing rivals U San Tun Aung (the memoir writer) and Lawyer U Po Khaing (who did not speak Chittagonian dialect though a Muslim himself) lost the elections.
Meanwhile the Mujahids continued fighting, hoisting the Pakistani Flag and shouting “Pakistan Zindabhad” (Long-live Pakistan). In June 1951 they held a Conference in Alethangyaw in Maungdaw Township and issued a “Charter of Demand of Rakhaing Muslims” asking for a separate Muslim State in northern Rakhaing State and equal rights with the Rakhaing.
Among the postwar re-established 60 Rakhaing villages the Mujahids raided 44, setting the houses on fire, looting the monasteries and villagers, killing the Rakhaing and raping the women. The action taken by the Government against the Mujahids was at first very lenient. This leniency caused great anger among the Rakhaing. The Rakhaing university students mocked the then Prime Minister U Nu by a cartoon in the Rakhaing Tazaung Magazine.
The AFPFL Government later sent the Burma Territorial Force (BTF) headed by major Tha Kyaw to fight the Mujahids. Then Major Tha Kyaw and his troops had to be transferred from the border and replaced by troops headed by Major Htin Kyaw. The Mujahids including their leader Kasim fled to the East Pakistan and their movement came to an end in 1959 while General Ne Win’s caretaker government was running the country.
RENEWED MOVEMENT UNDER NEW NAME “ROHINGYA”
During his campaign for the 1960 elections U Nu promised to grant statehood to the Rakhaing and to the Mons respectively. When he again became Prime Minister the movements for the formation of Rakhaing State and Mon State came into life. Meanwhile Bengali Muslim leaders started an anti-Rakhaing State movement and asked for the same status as the Rakhaing.
When their demands were turned down on the grounds that they were not an indigenous race, some educated Bengali Muslims began to put forward evidence (of doubtful historical value) in an attempt to prove that they were indigenous Rakhaing Muslims. Some stories presented by their “historians” are ridiculous. For example they say that their Arab ancestors became settled in the Kingdom of Rakhaing after a shipwreck near the Rambre (Ramree) Island off the kingdom of Rakhaing coast in the eighth century.5
The period 8th century was the period of Dannyawady Dynasty in Rakhaing history and the old city site can still be seen near Kyauktaw together with its stone monuments of Buddhism including some Buddha images and inscriptions of Buddhist scriptures. This was the city from where the great Mahamuni Buddha Image was taken in 1784 by King Bodawpaya to Mandalay.
There may well have been contacts between the Arab world and the Kingdom of Rakhaing but there is no evidence of Arabic culture or Islamic faith there suggesting few people settled. The only non-Buddhist evidence found for the 7th and 8th centuries in that area was Hindu. Before the emergence of indigenous culture in South-East Asia, the area was mainly under the influence of Indian civilization. That is why some scholars call this area “Father India” and the City States there “Indianized States”. However, unfortunately, some Muslims with strong religious and racial prejudice attempt to misinterpret them as Islamic States instead of Hindu ones.
Another claim of these “historians” is that Rakhaing Kings of Mrauk-U Dynasty in the 15th century were Muslims. This statement is based on the fact that few Rakhaing Kings of early Mrauk-U Dynasty had Muslim titles side by side with their own Rakhaing ones. Of course they did so, but the only possible reason for this was to show their lordship over their Muslim subjects residing, in Chittagong area, which was under Rakhaing rule until 1666 A.D.
If these kings were Muslims they would surely not have built Buddhist pagodas. However there are so many Buddhist pagodas, in and around Mrauk-U, which were built by these kings. The construction of the Buddha Image is diametrically opposite from the Islam faith. Therefore it is totally impossible to suggest that the kings of Rakhaing Kingdom in the 15th century were Muslims.
As a matter of fact there has never been a Rohingya race in Myanmar. There is no such name as Rohingya in the Census of India, 1921 Myanmar compiled by S.G. Grantham, I.C.S., Superintendent of Census Operations, Myanmar or in the Myanmar Gazetteer, Sittwe District compiled by R.B. Smart. Since these were written for administrative purposes, needless to say they were objective.
Even in 1951 when the Bengali Muslims in the land of Rakhaing held the “Alethankyaw Conference”, they did not claim that they were Rohingyas. Instead they called themselves “Rakhaing Muslims”.
When General Ne WIn’s Revolutionary Government came to power in 1962, the Mujahid movement was stopped together with the statehood issues of the Rakhaing and the Mons. In 1973 when the BSPP Government sought public opinion for drafting a constitution the Bengali Muslims submitted a proposal for the formation of a separate Muslim division with the name of “Mayu Division”6 mentioning the “shipwreck theory” of their descent.7
Although the BSPP Government did not meet the Bengali Muslim’s demands or did not even allow them to stand for the elections for local administrative bodies, Bengali influx could not be stopped. Moreover the Bengali Muslims gathered a large number of arms and ammunition from the Bangladesh liberation war and an organization was formed shouting the slogan “Rohingya National Liberation” on 15-7-1972.8
In 1978 the Myanmar Government launched Operation Nagarmin on a nation-wide scale as part of a demographic survey. For fear of facing the immigration check, a large number of Muslims fled to Bengladesh. Although the number of those who fled the country was set as 156,630, Myanmar accepted back 186,965 Bengali Muslims under Decca Agreement. Then, in 1982, the Myanmar Citizenship Act was promulgated.9
ROHINGYA MOVEMENT AFTER 1988
The democracy uprising in 1988 provided a great opportunity for the Rohingya activists. They jumped on the bandwagon and participated in the demonstrations more for the interest of their own cause rather than nation-wide democratic cause, hoisting the Rohingya banner freely without any one to oppose them.
When the SLORC allowed the registration of the political parties they also applied to get their parties registered. The Election Commission however turned them down. Some therefore toned down their own cause and changed the name of the party by dropping the word “Rohingya”. One of their parties, National Democratic Party for Human Rights (NDPHR) won 4 seats in the 1990 elections, but the party has now been deregistered together with two hundred-odd parties.
Now they are emphasizing more on the armed struggle. According to Mya Win the following are the Rohingya insurgent organizations currently activating.10
- RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organization);
- ARIF (Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front);
- RPF (Rohingya Patriotic Front);
- RLO (Rohingya Laberation Organization);
- IMA (Itihadul Mozahadin of Arakan).
The causes of this problem can be attributed firstly to the disregard of the area by the governments since the colonial period down to the early days of the SLORC, with the exception of the Operation Nagarmin launched by the BSPP Government in 1978. Even then the operation tailed off and was replaced by the Hintha Campaign.
The British ruled Myanmar as part of their Indian Empire until 1947 when they relied for the boost of agricultural produce mainly upon the Chittagonian Muslims. This might be partly because of the scarcity of labour in Myanmar and partly because the Indians were more humble, obedient and hard working than the people of Myanmar.
The consecutive government after independence was not in a position to pay equal attention to the average development of the whole country causing the grievances of the minorities.
Some government leaders such as AFPFL Premier U Nu and U Ba Swe, in their campaign speeches, publicly stated the recently intruded Bengali Muslims among the national races under the name of Rohingya.
Political leaders were no scholars, but they should be aware of the real feeling and the realities of the nationalities. They should avoid such shortsighted and irresponsible commitments became these things are very grave concerns of the nation. The above leaders, probably without understanding the realities, made those statements simply to win their votes. Some AFPFL leaders of that area even granted instant citizenship to the new influx of Bengalis so as to make them able to cast the vote for their party.
The departmental personnel, especially some of those from the Immigration Department serving at the border area, also contributed to the emergence of the Rohingya problem by accepting bribes and issuing National Registration Cards to the illegally immigrated Bengali Muslims.
The final cause of the problem directly concerns the Rakhaing people. The Bengali Muslims have come into land of Rakhaing with the intention of starting a new life and are of great vigilance and zeal whereas their Rakhaing hosts are sluggish, negligent and lethargic about their future problems.
(A part of the cited references some facts in this article are based on the unpublished memoir of Bonbauk Tha Kyaw.)
- Hall, D.G.E., A History of South-East Asia, p.398
- Twentieth Century Impression of Burma, p.396; London, Lloyd Greater Britain Publishing House Co., Ltd., 1908
- Khin Gyi Pyaw, Who are the Mujahids in Arakan, Rakhine Tazaung Megazine. 1959-60, p.99.
- unpublished type script.
- Maung Than Lwin; “Rakhaing Kalar or Roe Wan Nya People”, Myawaddy Magazine 1962. And also in the Proposal of the Rohingya People to the Constitution Commission. (Hereafter this will be referred to as Proposal.)
- Mayu is the name of river which flows across Northern Rakhaing State.
- Mya Win, “If we appraise the attempts made to sow enmity against Myanmar Naing Ngan”, WPD, 25-1-1992.